“God don’t bet on football games,” Matt Woods growls on the opening track of his new record How to Survive, and watching his career over the past few years, it’s obvious he’s not hedging any bets on divine intervention in the music business either. There are few artists who work harder, who tour more relentlessly than Woods, as he searches for, as Bukowski put it, “the next line that finally breaks through, finally says it.” Despite (or maybe because of) the long odds, the snow-piled highways and hills, Woods keeps moving, and this newest record keeps his streak alive, following up 2014’s With Love from Brushy Mountain in a bit gentler but equally powerful fashion.
Due for release on October 7, How to Survive blends Woods’ well-worn, musical stylings with a tenderness that seems to be born from the heart of a man who spends a lot of time alone, wrestling with growing older, grasping for something in that fine, misty space between sweet memory and bitter regret.
Recorded once again at Shed 55 in Knoxville, the album opens with a classic Woods-style tune, “The American Way.” Featuring top-notch lyrical content right from the opening lines (“Some men war in the desert heat / daddy fought hard so his kids could eat / workin’ metal in a mill on Industrial Street / we’re still waiting on his purple heart”) the lead track puts its finger solidly on the pulse of current social issues while ushering in the new collection of songs with some familiar fiddle, stomp and swing that will remind fans of other favorites such as “Company Town” and “Brushy Mountain.”
The second track blazes different trails- titled “Fireflies,” the tune tenderly enshrines an enviable couple as the benchmark for bliss; Woods’ lyrics invite an unnamed counterpart to share that same ethereal (and, judging by the songs that follow, ill-fated) shot at long-term happiness. The chorus flirts cleverly with two conceits: “We’d waltz through the Wintertime / Two-step into Spring / Slowdance with fireflies on Summer nights / Fall in love over again.” While many purveyors of the genre Woods slings sometimes privilege simplicity to a fault, there is no lack of depth here. Combining the classic country-western thematic element of dance-as-life with the eastern, Beat-esque movement of the seasons from birth toward demise, “Fireflies” is arguably the standout track on How to Survive, amongst many contenders. Personally, it puts me in mind of Jason Isbell’s “Flagship;” Woods’ new work absolutely stands up both lyrically and aesthetically to his songwriting contemporaries.
“Bound to Lose,” cuts back to a thread (or a string, if you like, considering the song’s continual references to being “tied up in guitar strings”) that runs through much of the lyrical content on this record- the road. While less apocalyptic than Cormack McCarthy’s vision of it, the road in Woods’ songs is indeed one that runs out into a darkness. Both “Bound to Lose” (co-written with Jeff Shepherd, whose album Woods recently produced) and the next track, “Good Man” deal with the transient nature of the artist; and while the former song resignedly glorifies the pleasures of “old guitars and hotel bars,” the latter sets out a sort of obituary for the man who’s pushed the road to it’s limit, quite literally.
“Good Man” bats cleanup in the album order, and with good reason- the song is a hard-hitter. It’s tough not to pause and reflect on the line “He’s lyin’ there as still as he can be / Lifeless on that shoulder lookin’ just like me / It’s the story of a good man / didn’t have a fighting chance / who made a stand anyway / He never got a headstone / most folks could have never known he passed away.” There’s a wide, populist appeal to the song’s central existential query, but for Woods and those like him trudging across the continent year after year, there’s a real question of legitimacy being raised here. Three records in, Matt seems to be weighing two scales against each other- the traditional metric of monetary success that holds the significant weight of that uniquely disgusting American tabloid cult of (im)personality against that airy bronze plate of the artist and his self-recognized, self-loved, self-loathed, always barroom-bared oversoul. Woods’ existential hero accepts death in a ditch but refuses to see it as an unfit ending; besides, snow melts, and somebody is bound to find the corpse, right?
Bittersweet human relationships and the roads that both bring them together and peel them apart run strong as rivers through the rest of the record. Woods works these themes out in song as it seems he’s worked them over and over in his mind as he moves city to city, bar to bar. As with all of his best work, these songs are deeply personal- he admitted last time I spoke with him that he was a bit afraid that those he wrote for and about would have no difficulty finding themselves in the lyrics, and I suspect he’s right. In “Bedsheets” (a track that will be familiar to those who’ve caught Matt’s live shows over the past couple of years) he longs for a reliving of those most intimate moments of a long relationship defined by separation. “Hang our bedroom sheets out on the line / air out all this lonely we been through,” pleads the chorus; to Woods’ credit, it feels like true regret rather than melancholic posturing; indeed, there are a lot of lines on this record that stand up as particularly authentic, and “Bedsheets” is chock-full of them. “You had my word / even though my hat don’t like to hang at home / knowing that these boots would always make me roam / a heart’s a heavy thing to leave behind” pulls exactly zero punches.
As with Woods himself, it’s not all gloom and regret- “Tonight (Don’t Let Me Down)” is a sly grin in the face what sometimes must feel like a bleak routine of unfamiliar barrooms and strange faces, and there are plenty of foot-tapping arrangements throughout How to Survive that provide a welcome glimpse into the true power of Matt’s songwriting ability- whether it’s just the man himself on stage with his signature tobacco-burst Guild and ice blue eyes hollering past the mic into a suddenly tomb-silent crowd, or the swelling pedal steel, sawmill fiddle and lush, verby telecaster of the full band pouring out the hi-fi, these songs are another step forward for a musician who tries his damndest not to look back for too long. God might not bet on football games, but I’ll bet She sure as hell regrets not pre-ordering this record. You’re gonna love it.
Mike Damron’s got one of his molars for sale at the merch table- he’s asking thirty bucks and it’s at least two-thirds whole. The other third, he laments, broke off and got swallowed in a burger or something on the way to Sacramento two days earlier, causing emergency oral surgery after that night’s gig. “Buddy” he wheezes to me, just before he goes on, tapping his hyoid with his finger, “I swear the shards of that mother fucker sliced my shit up on the way down! Feels like I got fuckin’ razor blades in my esophagus.” This, of course, mixed with the usual gastric acid surging upward (apparently exacerbated tonight by some “fucking enchee-ladas”) has him understandably worried about whether he can sing.
Turns out, it don’t matter- Damron’s signature howl-growl is on point as usual (to me it evokes a young Tom Waits doing Dukes-era Steve Earle, although Mike will describe it halfway through the set as “Neil Young fucking Prince”) and he launches into the set with a stomp of his foot and a sling of his head, smashing away with his characteristic punk-blues hamfist on a new blonde Epiphone Sheridan (a totally unsubtle, totally enviable nod to Ben Nichols.) If anything, his continual reminders to the crowd between songs that some lyringeal Chernobyl is imminent add even more gravity to what is already some seriously heavy shit- each strangling line tremoloed by the blood-glutted irrigation ditches we imagine plowed into his tonsil tissue, every note sent warbling like schlieren waves from jet engine lungs.
Damron’s new band, the Do Betters, are a refreshingly sparse 3-piece, featuring Allen Hunter on bass and James Pearson behind the drums. James looks pretty familiar when he first walks in, and it takes a few minutes for me to realize that he used to have a lot less hair when he was the drummer in Truckstop Darlin’, one of my favorite Northwest bands. It sucks that they broke up so soon after the release of “Southern Ghosts” but it’s good to see him here as he holds the beat on a stripped-down kit with a zen-like aplomb, occasionally taking a small sip of water, wearing white crew socks with no shoes.
Hunter keeps switching between a couple different bass guitars, one of which looks like it was a shitty Japanese Tele in a former life. His tone is fantastic; augmented by a pretty badass selection of pedals, he slams back and forth between traditional anchoring rhythms and frenetic lead sections (15th fret mandolin-esque trem-strum into an Earthquaker Devices “HOOF” fuzzbox pushing an EHX Holy Grail is instantaneously boner inducing, by the way… you’ve been warned.) About 15 years ago I was in a band with a bass player who had the same proclivity for soloing. We were attempting to make a record and the studio engineer, who was a friend of mine, tried to be helpful by explaining that lead bass sounded weird, that it was throwing the audience off, that leads were meant for Les Pauls. Now, watching Allen fly through a comfortingly blue-collar pentatonic run at a perfectly head-bobbing tempo, it suddenly occurs to me that my buddy can take his advice and shove it up Slash’s ass.
Hunter also plays the role of tuner, apparently. “Your E string is flat” he yells as the band launches into “If I Had a Gun,” a forked-tongue-in-cheek song they co-wrote about killing the entire world. “Naw man” counters Mike as the beat shatters. “Yeah” answers Allen. This goes on for a bit until Mike uses his tuner (!) to check and whaddya know, the bass player was right. “Fuck you, Motherfucker,” Mike says, meaning, I guess, “thanks” and the song starts up again, with James sunk deep in the pocket, Allen careening around Novoselically and Damron lost in his own cyanide universe, his uncommonly clear eyes like glass beads behind the veil of flung hair, neck arched up toward the rafters, body straining down toward the concrete, the Sheridan a scimitar arc between them, whistling and sharp, cutting body heat, beating back the darkness on the edge of stage.
It occurs to me that I’ve never seen Mike play on any day besides Sunday, for some reason, and as a consequence I’ve always equated his shows with a kind of worship, though not always with rest. Whether he plays solo, with ICLASOBITH, or with the Do Betters, watching him perform is a lot like what I imagine it was like to witness the crucifixion; the whole thing is a brutally honest hanging out-to-dry, an almost ritualistic self-flagellation, taking on (not only in the tradition of Christ but also of Leadbelly and Cash and Jennings) the sins and sorrows of a million men like himself, and yet not like himself, because Damron (as self-depreciating and death-obsessed as he comes across) is a hopeful man too. He might be nailed to a bloody, shitsoaked tree that he wishes for all the kingdoms of the world he could come down from, but in the end there’s only one way out, and that’s to open up the eyes and the mouth and just fucking sing until you die, man. Now, some of this is showmanship (and so was Golgotha, if we’re being honest) but a hell of a lot of it isn’t, and it’s worth remembering that there is an authenticity to Mike’s songs that you just don’t get hardly anywhere else; when he says “row little boy” you best row until you drop because when he tells you the darkness is coming, it’s coming. Indeed, it’s already here: the sky goes black and it’s just Mike in the middle and James and Allen like bandits on his flanks, unapologetically slinging the truth of what it means to be human and we’re all here on a Sunday evening and we have chills running down our spines because Mike is waking our ghosts and asking us to say hello.
Nobody throws dice at the feet of Mike D when he’s on stage though- that’s a good way to get your teeth kicked in… although if that does happen, the man will be happy to sell you two-thirds of a replacement.
Generally, fuck Los Angeles. It’s a post-desert wasteland of pay-to-play venues and Instagram feeds littered with cheap photo-class headshots moonlighting as band flyers. The traffic flows smooth as a bloodclot in an Alex Jones neck vein and the air smells like dragon shit. But every once in a blue (or in LA, brown) moon it’s worth battling the existential dread of the 134 freeway for a chance to catch a truly great band in a dark, beerstink room that (once you’re in and you forget about how much it just cost to park your car in the perfect spot to lose your radio) could really be anywhere in America; tonight, that room happens to be The Echo on Sunset Boulevard, temporary home to the Roots Roadhouse Festival and, most importantly, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers.
Ever since their debut record Sidelong was re-released on Bloodshot Records this past April, I’ve been waiting for a chance to see Shook and her band burn down a venue with their particular brand of Alt.Country, which careens like a shatteringly hungover pendulum between southern-fried Americana and punk. Sidelong, for me, incorporates the best aspects of Lucinda Williams and Hank III (dark, compelling songwriting/musicianship and sneering, brash delivery) while managing to eschew the worst elements of both (a near-dylanesque rejection of the meta and abject levels of racism and misogyny.) Live, the Disarmers bring the same level of intensity and authenticity to the stage.
Tonight, despite its being located a few hundred miles to the south of my California comfort zone, The Echo feels strangely like home. There’s a nary a hipster to be found, which is refreshing, though knowing LA, not all of these folks wear this much denim on the regular, and a few of the Stetsons look a bit newish. Still, I quickly spot a couple “Alt Country not Alt Facts” tees peeking out from behind the pearl snaps and even a few familiar faces; Mark and Lance from Mike Stinson’s band are right where I last saw them- lounging at the bar (it was a different bar though, in a different town, in a different month but who’s keeping score?) I have just enough time to grab a bourbon and soda as the line check rolls up; the band members crack a few last jokes off mic, Shook takes a big swig of PBR and they kick into the first song of the set.
From the get-go, it’s obvious that this is going to be a good night for the Disarmers, seeing as how the crowd pushes toward the stage enthusiastically, pints raised roofward at the very first bell-clear swell of the pedal steel. Unfortunately, Shook’s almost husky lower register gets lost somewhere in the rafters during the opening number (apparently the place is called “The Echo” for a reason) and as she pauses to tune her trademark big, beautiful Gretsch hollowbody between songs the crowd starts hollering “more vocals!” at the soundbooth. Sarah looks up with a crooked grin and squints into the lights; “I think someone here wants some more of my voice” she drawls. The invisible hand of the soundman prods the fader and the old, dented 58 springs to life as Shook chuckles, obviously pleased both with the mood of the crowd and her good fortune at getting a mix adjustment without having to be the bad guy for once.
The set focuses, quite appropriately, on tunes from Sidelong. It’s the Disarmers’ first West Coast tour, but as they skip around the tracklist from the record, it quickly becomes obvious that while the band might not have made it out to California until now, their songs have definitely preceded them. Each one is greeted with a cheer and a lot of the room sings along for most of the set. When Shook turns to lead guitarist Eric Peterson and asks “how about ‘Fuck Up’?” the crowd bellows out a hearty “hell yes!” “I wasn’t talking to you” Shook shouts back, but she’s beaming; she seems almost startled that we know the back half of the record (understandable in a culture that previews music online with the general attention span of a Jager-drunk frat kid on a leftward Tinder-swipe spree) but the band takes advantage of the moment and away we go.
The arrangements are almost dead-to-rights off the album, but the delivery still feels fresh. Shook’s vocals ride easily though the welcome diversity of range in her songs, moving from that low, ominous growl in “Heal Me” to the clear, almost falsetto-fragile tremble in the chorus of “Dwight Yoakam.” The latter is, for me, the stand out number in this particular set, delivered with a fierceness and intensity that holds the attention of the increasingly rowdy room despite its placement as the penultimate song of the evening and its uniquely introspective, mid-tempo waltziness. And while Shook is not the type of frontperson to roll around on a LA divebar stage (there are far more enjoyable ways to contract herpes) she exudes a hell of a lot of energy from her tiny frame, strumming with nearly her whole body and occasionally drifting back to whip her hair for a bit with drummer John Howie, Jr. during the instrumental breaks. Peterson takes advantage of these opportunities to attack his lead guitar parts with a sort of blue-collar economy, wringing deceptively complex and undeniably tasty licks from a yellow telecaster with a headstock that looks like the gut-hook on a hunting knife. Howie, Jr. and upright bassist Aaron Oliva keep it in the pocket with some punk-derived drive but manage to avoid the tired “third night in a row on a shitty cocaine bender” trainbeat schizophrenia that plagues much of “outlaw country.” Meanwhile pedal steel man Phil Sullivan infuses the whole thing with those crystalline wailings that are so essential to both the physical and existential glue of any true country band.
The set ends too soon, of course, thanks to the time-constraints of the festival setting and Shook and her band load off quickly. The crowd heads to the merch table to grab t-shirts, vinyl, and the requisite handful of stickers that will soon adorn the dented bumpers, stop signs and urinals of the greater Los Angeles area. Sarah locks her Gretsch in its case and stands by the green room door greeting fans and signing records. She’s all smiles now, with no sign of the deep frown she wears while diving for those low, lonely notes onstage. I’m surprised by her warmth and kindness as she scribbles her name neatly on the back of my newly-purchased LP but I guess I shouldn’t be- there is an innate human-ness to Shook’s music despite its hard-drinking, hard-living bravado and seeing her sing and socialize in person quickly confirms the authenticity one suspects in her even upon the first spin of Sidelong.
I grab another cocktail and head through a long, winding hallway toward the back patio stage to catch the next band, still glowing a bit with the joy of watching real people play real music. I round the corner to find some asshole in a red velour suit and a clean cowboy hat crooning “I wish John Waaaaayne was a cuuuuuuntry saaaaaangerrrrrrr” in a southern accent that sounds about as worn in as the shiny Strat that hangs nearly untouched around his remarkably white neck. Next to him, a guy in a tye-dye t shirt noodles through the Bakersfield fakebook while a wax statue of John Waters tickles the Moog. Ah, Los Angeles.
Halfway through degenerate-cum-degenerate Mishka Shubaly’s set, a middle-aged woman in fence-paint-thick lipstick seizes my arm. She drops her weight into me, her fingertips dimpling my bicep and shoves her botox cheek against mine so that our faces are aligned like Cops sitting driver-side to driver-side in an alley. “Please. Please.” Her booze-breath stings the inside of my ear canal as she literally sobs. “Please make him stop. Make him get offstage. It’s awful.”
To be fair, one of the most entertaining parts of a Shubaly set is taking bets on how fast the room will clear and tonight he’s playing the back half of the dinner hour at a pub-grub-and-craft-tap establishment in a California seaside resort town popular with the sort of people even wine snobs generally dislike. But Mishka’s hallmark self-depreciating, pull zero punches, give zero fucks approach to both stage banter and lyrical content tends to thin even the dive-iest of bar crowds and so it’s no surprise when the lady leaves out the back door (though her husband, it is worth noting, stays, chuckling quietly in the corner.)
Tonight’s performance follows the general trajectory that most (initially) well-attended Shubaly shows have taken in my experience. Mishka plugs in one of his eternally disparate, always exquisite vintage electric guitars, coaxes a suitably blaring tube-crackle tone from his amp and eases into his first song, “Am I the Only One Drinking Tonight?” He delivers the dirg-y chorus in his trademark baritone gargle; a few beers are raised, some heads begin to nod along and people politely lower their voices as they order food from the waiter at the bar tables. The tune ends to enthusiastic applause and the banter begins. For most musicians, the banter is secondary to the songs, just a way to fill time while tuning, but for Shubaly it’s usually the opposite. A multi-talented wordsmith, Mishka is not only a musician- he’s also a standup comedian, cult radio personality, a widely published author and a Yale University adjunct and he puts his considerable oratory skill to work in almost equal amounts with his singing most nights.
He wraps up his first five-minute diatribe (which focuses primarily on his intimate and extensive knowledge of illicit substances) with, “People always ask me ‘Mishka, you’ve done all the drugs. What’s the best one?’ And I can tell you, since I have done all the drugs, the best drug is birth control. There’s nothing better than being forty and having zero adult responsibilities.” The audience laughs. “Here’s a song to my unborn child.” He launches into “Your Stupid Dreams,” from his 2015 album Coward’s Path. “Wild Horses on the Jukebox or whatever the hell it was / we were young we were in love we were drunk and on drugs / your mom can say what she wants about how I wasted my time / but I had so much fuckin’ fun burning out at twenty-nine.” A few raised eyebrows, wry smiles and a couple legit fans singing along... “Hey kid hold on to your dreams / your stupid hopeless dreams / you’ll grow meeker and colder as you get weaker and older / making the same money you did when you were seventeen.” People still waiting on their orders begin to look as if they’re just now realizing they’ve made a fatal mistake.
By the time their club sandwiches and artisanal tater-tots arrive, Mishka is discussing the finer points of dating at forty. And while he’s yet to serenade diners with the Rimbaudian descriptions of middle-aged male genitalia that will come in his next song (wherein he will liken his half-hard dick to a white flag of surrender) he’s certainly spent more time than many in the room would likely deem necessary explaining his gifting of a fallen-off big toe-nail in a heart-shaped locket to his much younger girlfriend this past Valentine’s day. “My warranty has expired… my body is a crumbling insane asylum” he concludes as a number of people begin to actively leave.
Still, by the end of the set an encouraging number of die-hards remain- the Stanhope fans, the other bands and a few tables full of drunk, fist-pumping twenty-somethings who seem like they absorbed the “give me speed, spite and strychnine” part (Shubaly’s wonderfully cynical take on Little Feat) and missed the “so… I had to stop drinking” part. It’s this phrase, by far the least concupiscent of the night, delivered with a sense of both Marianas Trench-deep regret and nauseous joy, that leads into the last song of the evening. “I’m never drinking again” lilts the chorus, and, just like the best lullabies, the song’s sleepy, minor melody echoes our collective resolve to somehow outlast the slow fingers of darkness spreading out from beneath our beds.
So why does he do it? What drives a self-described “sober drunk” (who claims to have literally done every drug, alienated nearly every friend and family member and who has now put that hellscape at least physically behind him) to spend most nights up on shithole bar stages resolutely sipping club soda and virtually daring someone to clean his clock over any number of remarks lewd enough to blue the barrel of a navy gun? Why not a pretty, sweet little Martin rather than the jarring jangle of the unaccompanied electric guitar? Why the pinpoint focus on indiscretion after indiscretion, every innuendo taken two dick jokes too far? Why the rollercoaster of alcoholic war stories and near Spanish Inquisition-levels of self flagellation?
Because fucking art, man. What that lady with the Behr Industrial makeup and every other person who walks out in disgust from a Shubaly show misses completely is the fact that art isn’t made to pair with artisanal tater-tots because art isn’t supposed to pair well with anything other than the unbridled, unhinged honesty of its particular purveyor. Art is meant to blow from the weird soul of the artist and the point of art is not, and never should be, to please the audience according to what they think they want; and thus any moment in which the mad witchment of the artist is fully tuned to the consumer needs of any average audience is fortuitous but by no means necessary or even desirable. The glow of a saturday night ukulele jamfest wears thin with the advent of a new work week but a good misting of blood flung from stage enters your capillaries whether you like it or not and when you stick out a Mishka set, he’s fucking IN you forever.
William Blake taught us that worthwhile art attempts the Sublime- that which is dark, massive, unable to be described unless experienced and above all, terrifyingly free of constraint. Mishka Shubaly is sublime, and most of the rest of us are not, and that’s just the way it is. But we resent the honesty, we plead for the storm to be contained, put back in the Reynoldean frame, and we take our food to go when the gale is allowed to rattle into splinters the doors of our cellars. The sublimity of Shubaly haunts audiences because Mishka may be singing about booze, but we’re thinking about bank account; his slackening penis is our social media profile, his glib freedom to worry only about where his pants are reminds us of the closeness of our prison walls and how much we hate them. This is what art is meant to do. And this is why it makes us so very uncomfortable.
“I’m too big for America” Mishka jokes toward the end of his set. He’s right.